Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Jan. 26, on the public records advocate:

Ginger McCall’s parting gift to Oregon was a crash course in the importance of independence.

McCall, Oregon’s first public records advocate, resigned last year after just 18 months on the job, citing pressure from the governor’s general counsel to adopt stances that supported the governor’s agenda – not the public interest as her office’s name would suggest. Her courageous decision, delivered with the records to back up her claims, motivated the public records advisory council on which McCall served to make the office’s independence a top priority.

Unfortunately, not everyone on the committee absorbed the lesson.

The committee passed recommendations for a draft bill that legislators will consider next month. But one committee member, who dissented from the group, is seeking an amendment that would eviscerate the bill, cutting the reforms sought by the committee, including establishing independence for the public records advocate. The member, Oregon League of Cities lobbyist Scott Winkels, urged that legislators hold off on decoupling the position from the governor’s office, questioning whether the change would mean a lack of accountability for the advocate.

His worries, however, are obscenely misplaced. Oregonians shouldn’t worry about a lack of accountability for an independent advocate, who would still report to the 13-member public records council of governmental representatives, journalists and non-voting legislators. Rather, the real problem lies with state and local agencies that have routinely escaped accountability for refusing to share records of government business with the public. As The Oregonian/OregonLive, other media organizations and many members of the public have shown ad nauseum, governmental bodies routinely drag out their responses to requests. They often demand thousands of dollars before releasing documents that they have decided are sensitive – whether or not they actually are. And some governmental bodies have even sued when ordered by the state attorney general or a district attorney to turn over documents.

Yet those records, once received, often yield news stories and investigations that unquestionably serve the public. For example, after The Oregonian/OregonLive exposed Portland Public Schools’ decades of mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against a longtime educator, the district revised its policies, adopted new training and advocated for state-level changes to make sure such failures don’t occur again. These are the kinds of benefits and reforms that get lost when agencies can evade scrutiny.

Independence is critical for an advocate to be able to fearlessly lobby for proposals that can change Oregon’s secretive culture. An advocate who serves the public, rather than an elected official, can more fairly mediate disputes between agencies and requestors over release of a record. And a strong vote in favor of independence will help Oregon recruit the next good-governance champion that Oregonians need.

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Oregon has already lost a dedicated public servant with McCall’s resignation, though she remains invested in these reforms. She telephonically attended a meeting last week of the public records council, encouraging members to stay the course on the changes they are seeking.

When legislators take up the legislation put forward by the council, they should think about the example that McCall set. They should recall that Gov. Kate Brown, after McCall’s resignation, now supports separating the position from her office’s supervision. They should remember the support that Oregonians throughout the state showed McCall and the cause of independence.

But most of all, they should recognize that the status quo doesn’t serve the public. Legislators must demonstrate that they do.

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Mail Tribune, Aug. 29, on park fees:

Jackson County commissioners will probably come in for more than their share of criticism for approving a batch of rate hikes for county parks and recreational facilities this month. The usual rhetoric will be deployed, from “the county should live within its means” to “they should use reserve funds instead of building a new jail.” All of those arguments are off the mark.

As County Administrator Danny Jordan explains, the county parks system is an enterprise fund. That means it uses no tax dollars, and is supported entirely by user fees.

Would it be nice if taxes supported parks and the fees could be kept to a minimum, or even eliminated altogether for county residents? Sure, but county taxes do not bring in enough to do that, and county residents wouldn’t be very happy if they did.

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Jackson County is blessed with some very attractive county parks, offering fishing, boating, camping and overnight accommodations including yurts and cabins. And the Emigrant Lake water slides offer additional summer fun.

All of these attractions cost money to operate and to maintain, and parks fees have not increased in several years, while costs continued to rise. Deferred maintenance has built up as a result, leaving a backlog of plumbing issues, electrical work and paving that needs to be dealt with before it gets even more costly.

The increases were recommended by the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, made up of citizen volunteers. The new fees are reasonable, considering the value they represent to users. Some of the fees are going up more than others, with water slide wrist bands leading the way. The water slides are especially important to maintain because they would pose a safety risk if allowed to deteriorate.

It’s worth noting that a number of fees — those affecting the largest number of park visitors — are not changing. Daily parking fees that everyone pays to use the parks will remain the same, as will the cost of renting a picnic shelter on weekends, the fee for staying in a Howard Prairie Resort cabin and boat rental and storage fees at Howard Prairie.

Some will ask whether the county could use reserve funds, but that’s not what reserves are for. Standard budgeting practices call for using reserves for one-time capital investments such as new buildings or facilities, not for yearly operating expenses and maintenance.

User fees are an unfortunate fact of life for a county government that once relied on timber harvest revenue to offset property taxes. Those days are gone, and the only way to continue to provide parks and recreation services is through user fees or higher taxes. We’re confident most county residents would prefer user fees.

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The Bulletin, Jan. 28, on increasing certain criminal sentences:

Some crimes leave their victims so damaged that they’ll never fully recover. Then, as if to pour salt in their wounds, the very people who hurt them are given relatively light prison sentences. Ezra’s Law, House Bill 4122 in the 2020 Legislature, aims to change that. It should be approved.

The proposed law is named for Ezra Jerome Thomas of Madras, 4, who was beaten by his mother’s then-boyfriend when the child was only 2. He was left wheelchair-bound and unable to breathe on his own, among other things. The boyfriend, Josue Jair Mendoza-Melo, received a 12-year prison sentence with the possibility of parole.

That punishment in such cases would change if HB 4122, sponsored by Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, who represents Jefferson County; Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, and others, becomes law. It would require a mandatory 25-year sentence for someone found guilty of committing assault or attempted murder that left a victim with permanent physical damage. The person would not be eligible for parole during that time.

There are exceptions, and that’s a good thing. A judge may choose not to impose the 25-year sentence if the criminal has not been sentenced for a similar crime and if there are significantly mitigating circumstances. He or she may also make it clear that the person being sentenced is eligible for early release.

Oregon’s Measure 11 law, approved by voters in 1995, sets mandatory sentences for a variety of felonies, ranging from murder to compelling prostitution. Persons convicted of those crimes are not eligible for parole.

This bill gives judges at least some discretion where sentencing is concerned, and that makes perfect sense. After all, judges are chosen because, presumably, voters or the governor who appointed them believe they both understand the law and are wise enough to apply it correctly.

There should be harsh punishment for those whose criminal acts permanently injure another. That said, judges must be allowed to use their discretion under some circumstances. This bill accomplishes both.